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‘We are Ja and Jaren’: Meet Memphis’ new one-two punch

With Mike Conley and Marc Gasol gone, a new dynamic duo leads the way

SAN ANTONIO — For more than a decade, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol were staples on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, representing the city as much as barbecue and blues. Conley and Gasol were the last remaining pieces from the Grit ‘n’ Grind squad that led the franchise to seven playoff appearances and a trip to the 2013 Western Conference finals.

But now both are gone, and the Memphis Grizzlies are putting their hope in two youngsters — Jaren Jackson and Ja Morant — to take them into a new era.

“We are Ja and Jaren. We are our own selves. We don’t try to be nobody else. We do what we do,” Morant told The Undefeated after a win over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday. “I feel like we are kind of showing [our potential]. We are still growing. We still got a lot more learning and work to do. But I feel like it’s a one-two punch.”

Said Jackson to The Undefeated: “We are going to be us. We are not worrying about anyone else. Trust me.”

While Conley and Gasol will forever be Grizzlies greats and are expected to have their jerseys retired one day in FedExForum, the team ultimately decided it was time to go with a youth movement. Memphis traded Gasol — the franchise’s leader in points, rebounds, blocks and field goals — to the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 7. And Conley — the franchise’s leader in total points, assists, steals and games played — was dealt to the Utah Jazz on June 19.

That said, the dynamic duo didn’t leave before making an impact on the current team. Jackson says he learned a lot from both Conley and Gasol during his rookie season.

“They led by example. They played with each other for so long that they knew each other like [brothers],” Jackson told The Undefeated. “Anyone that came in to play with them, they made sure to show them the habits that they had and led by example. …

“I touched the ball a lot when I was playing with them. They didn’t have to do that. They could have been selfish and not passed. But young guys that come in like me, people playing with them, they’re getting the ball because they know we have to learn by example.”

The departure of Conley and Gasol opened the door for Jackson and Morant, who are both 20 years old, to be the featured stars of the Grizzlies. And perhaps no Grizzly has ever gotten as much early buzz as Morant.

Jaren Jackson Jr. (right) and Ja Morant (center) of the Memphis Grizzlies react to a play against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 27 at the FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Morant walked into Memphis as the much-hyped No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, and he has dazzled. The former Murray State star, whose super-athleticism is more like Mike Conley Sr. than Jr., has averaged 18.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists in his first 10 games in the NBA. He scored a career-high 30 points in a win against the Brooklyn Nets and also made his first game-winning shot with a well-contested layup against the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday.

“You got to watch him,” Jackson said of his rookie teammate. “He’s crazy. Superathletic. Vision crazy. He doesn’t have an ounce of shakiness. He is always playing at his speed. His flow. … Playing at a speed like that is such a good asset to have because it makes sure you are never sped up.”

Jackson, meanwhile, is a big man who can shoot it from deep — just like his father, former NBA sharpshooter Jaren Jackson Sr. Jackson Jr. was a 2019 NBA All-Rookie first team selection last season and is averaging 14.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 made 3-pointers per game this season. He has nailed four 3-pointers in each of the last two games.

“He is getting comfortable,” Morant said. “With his confidence, you can tell. … He is just playing with that bop. Not thinking about it too much. You can tell he can hoop and we need it.”

Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said his hope is that Morant and Jackson just continue to excel a little more each day in every single area of the game.

“They can be a lethal duo,” Jenkins said. “Ja is going to be an engine for us, but you saw [Monday] where J.J. can be an engine for us. They will ultimately play off each other. The word I use is ‘chemistry.’ And that takes time. They have only been playing together for three weeks, and they will continue to work on that connection. It’s going to be fun to watch them grow because they are so dynamic on both sides of the floor.”

The Grizzlies are currently 4-7 and in rebuild mode, but they’re coming off two straight road wins. Time will tell if Morant and Jackson can headline Beale Street as long as Conley and Gasol did.

“I’m not making comparisons,” Jenkins said. “I just want them to be the best Ja and JJ as possible. They are two ultracompetitive, humble, unselfish guys who are going to help our entire team and franchise moving forward. Hopefully, we are just able to build with them, around them. And through their game, they can help each guy get better, too.”

Jackson said he is learning more about Morant every day and added that watching film is helping them gel as well.

“Hopefully, at some point,” Jackson said, “we will maximize ourselves as a duo.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.